We’re three days away from the kickoff of the NFL regular season and the Bills, with their retooled 53-man roster, are preparing for Sunday afternoon’s meeting with the Jets at the Meadowlands.
If you haven’t been hanging on every draft choice, trade and free agent signing, you need to know that there are 23 new Bills on the current roster, in you count tight end Lee Smith who returned after four seasons in Oakland. In addition, three other 2019 acquisitions are on injured reserve: free agent running back Senorise Perry and tackle LaAdrian Waddle and fifth-round draftee Vosean Joseph, a linebacker.
A 43 percent roster turnover changes the look of most every Buffalo personnel group, especially on offense.
Here’s a look at each unit with their respective grades heading into the season opener:
Quarterback: Starter Josh Allen had an average rookie season after being drafted seventh in the first round. He had issues with accuracy, as in college, but in fairness, he was burdened with a weak receiving corps and sub-standard offensive line.
The expectation is that he’ll take a step up … we’ll see.
Backup Matt Barkley, with his sixth NFL team, had a glittering game in a road win over the Jets last November. He gives Buffalo an experienced No. 2, a must as Allen missed four games due to injury last season and remains at risk after being the team’s leading rusher last season.
Running back: The waiving of veteran LeSean McCoy could be addition by subtraction given his struggles last season. Even if he thrives in Kansas City, it’s hard to argue the move. However, that leaves the running game in the hands of 36-year-old Hall of Famer-to-be, Frank Gore, who gained 722 rushing yards for the Dolphins last year, but had no TDs on the ground.
Third-round draft choice Devin Singletary has delighted fans with his elusiveness but there’s a question whether he has true NFL speed. T.J. Yeldon, the free agent from Jacksonville, looms merely as a reserve.
Fullback Pat DiMarco made the team due to his leadership and special teams skills.
Wide receiver: The Bills signed free agents John Brown (Baltimore) and Cole Beasley (Dallas) which would appear to be an upgrade though they combined for only eight touchdowns last season. Also back is enigmatic Zay Jones, coming off a decent sophomore season, and young speedsters Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie plus veteran return man Andre Roberts.
Still, it remains to be seen whether there’s a go-to wideout and if this unit is really improved.
Tight end: All you need to know is that last season Buffalo’s tight ends had a mere 45 catches with one touchdown … COMBINED. That’s less than three receptions per game from a key position. This year’s unit is virtually all new with the exception of Smith, a blocking specialist. But free agent signee Tyler Kroft, late of Cincinnati, never took a snap after breaking a bone in his foot during OTAs and though on the active roster, a date for his return is uncertain. The other two tight ends are rookie draft choices: Dawson Knox (3rd round) and Tommy Sweeney (7th).
Line: The only returning starter is left tackle Dion Dawkins, the other four are long gone, hence Buffalo drafted guard/tackle Cody Ford (2nd round) and brought in eight free agents including center Mitch Morse, center/guard Spencer long, guards Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano and tackle Ty Nsekhe. Morse, out of the concussion protocol, will start as will Ford at either guard or tackle. Long, Spain, Feliciano and Nsekhe are competing for the other two spots.
Line: Ends Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy are solid with the improved Shaq Lawson in reserve. Star Lotulelei, a veteran, was a disappointment last season and first-round draft choice Ed Oliver showed little in preseason games at the tackle position. The Phillipses, Jordan and Harrison, are their backups. This entire unit has been inconsistent pass rush-wise. Last season, Buffalo ranked 26th in the league with only 36 sacks, a mere 20 of those from the line … five of those from the retired Kyle Williams.
Linebacker: Second-year pro Tremaine Edmunds, in the middle, is Buffalo’s best defender and is a future Pro Bowler. Matt Milano, at one outside spot, was having a big year until breaking his leg last season. But before the injury he established himself as a legitimate starter. Lorenzo Alexander, at 36, is in the home stretch of his career but he brings leadership and wisdom to the position. The reserves, however, are iffy should a starter become injured.
Secondary: This is one of the best units in the league and that’s not hyperbole. At corner, Tre’Davious White could be in the Pro Bowl discussion and, on the other side, Levi Wallace can’t afford to slip as the Johnsons, Kevin and Taron, are solid and will see a lot snaps in the “nickel” and “dime” roles if they don’t earn the starting job.
Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde might be the top safety tandem in the NFL and they have experienced backups.
Placekicker Stephen Hauschka had an off-year, missing six field goals in 28 attempts, but the Bills clearly feel that was an aberration, having signed him to a two-year contract extension.
Punter Corey Bojorquez has been inconsistent this preseason and could be one bad performance from being replaced.
Long-snapper Reid Ferguson, though, is one of the league’s best at his craft.
This unit has a new coordinator in 37-year-old Heath Farwell and one of his jobs will be to improve the return game. Last season Buffalo was 24th in the league in kickoff returns and 21st on punts. That job might be simplified though with the signing of returner Andre Roberts, the former Jet who was a Pro Bowl returner in 2018.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)